Loving testimony for Gaspard Ulliel

Director recalls star’s last film role before tragedy struck

by Richard Mowe

Gaspard Ulliel and Vicky Krieps in More Than Ever
Gaspard Ulliel and Vicky Krieps in More Than Ever Photo: Courtesy of London Film Festival

Never in her wildest imaginings could director Emily Atef have predicted her film More Than Ever (Plus Que Jamais in French) would have such a close connection with the end of life.

One of her two lead actors, Gaspard Ulliel (who plays Matthieu) died in a skiing accident, aged 37, last January, in the mountains of the Savoie in France - just as she was working on the post-production with her editor Sandie Bonnard in Berlin where she lives.

Emily Atef
Emily Atef Photo: Peter Harwig

“The news came as such a shock,” said Atef, who had been watching scenes with Ulliel and co-star Vicky Krieps and knew their every facial movement and expression. The film was shot during Covid in Norway which took a long time to open up again. “I was only allowed to take seven of the technical team, myself and three actors. It turned out to be quite magical because we were living together like this little family in an amazing setting. We had beautiful weather which the locals said was unusual for the time of year, which was May and June. We went hiking together, and swimming, and it was amazing. Those are my precious memories about our time working together,” added Atef.

For the casting, she had already known Krieps (also currently receiving awards attention in Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage) and the actress had suggested Ulliel, whom she had known from his film roles. “When I watched them working together I realised that their performances were so strong and they were creating what was the ultimate love story,” said Atef.

Krieps’ character Hélène is a young woman in her early thirties who is suffering from fibrosis and the prospect of dying long before her time. Ulliel, as her boyfriend, eventually comes to terms with her fate, understanding that he has to allow her to choose her death, which brings a sense of emancipation to both of them.

Their escape to the wilds of Norway mirrors a motorbike trip that Atef made as a student when she hooked up with a guy from Trondheim who lived in Paris. “Once we got there I discovered that he was not that nice and it spoiled the trip but when you spend most of the time on the back of a motorbike you don’t look at the other person and he had on his helmet and visor. I was not in such a good place at the time, but the surrounding nature really inspired me,” Atef explained.

Gaspard Ulliel in More Than Ever
Gaspard Ulliel in More Than Ever

Before the narrative moves there, all the scenes are filmed claustrophobically, but once they reach the destination the film opens up. Hélène becomes small because of the wide spaces all around which make us humble. And, of course, she is gradually fading away.

“I am not a Buddhist myself but there is something appealing in that philosophy about Nature and rebirth. Maybe that is why I am not so afraid of the unknown,” said Atef, who appreciates the irony of the fact that her Berlin flat looks out over a peaceful cemetery.

“The subject has always interested me, even as a child. We had a dog who left the home one day when he had become very old and never returned. We couldn’t understand what had happened because he had never strayed previously. A friend who was a vet told us it was similar to what wolves would do. When they feel their time is up they leave the pack and go off and find bush in the forest where they can die in dignity and simplicity - and without putting the pack in danger. That really moved me and I understood it. And then growing up I realised he had the same fate but nobody talks about the subject. That’s why there was something really interesting to explore.”

Gaspard Ulliel and Vicky Krieps
Gaspard Ulliel and Vicky Krieps

Atef, whose father comes from Iran, is used to growing with different cultures so a character going off into the unknown to find out what is wrong with her “appeals to me because of my roots.”

Ulliel’s death still disturbs her, particularly when she watches the film. “He was so young and had so many stories still to tell, never mind the effect his passing will continue to have on his family and friends,” she said. “It was hard to finish the production of the film under these circumstances but I am so happy I had the chance to meet and work with him because he was a beautiful person.”

More Than Ever is on release from today <20 January> through Modern Films. Richard Mowe interviewed Emily Atef at the Unifrance Rendezvous with French Cinema in Paris.

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